South America

The bus ride from Mérida in the Andes mountains of Venezuela is simple. Mérida for a week. Small college town, poked on a plateau between a valley and higher mountains. Lethargy dominated, read in my room, scoped the delicious Danish girl (with boyfriend), ran around, when I ran at all, with two Brit chicks who when drunk were completely not understandable. Incomprehensible, unreadable, glowing happy drunks, bubbling away about this and that and everything else is naff, naff, naff. Walk around, take pictures of the cemetary. Body being exhumed, coffin rusted, bent, torn, sitting by wall, grinning girls shouting “Los dientes!”, the teeth, the skull, ribs, fibula, tibula, bones lying there. I check it out. Two burly, busty Latinas fingering the teeth, posing, taking pictures. One holds skull, supporting the mandible, and puts her head next to it, two matched grins. Leathered man in straw hat puts pieces in plastic bag, sweeps bones in, unconcerned, having just finished bringing bones to surface, to the world. Marker says 1974. Piece together the story: Kid dies, 24. Family is poor. Cheap grave, no concrete, cheap casket. Without concrete cheap casket rusts. So family saves, twenty plus years, saves, saves, saves, in the name of the dead. Up comes body for new concrete unleaking grave, new waterproof casket. But there will be no ceremony. Bones will be put in the new box, put back in the ground, family secure, having done duty and reassured themselves. Family not even present for the exhumation, the resurrection. Jesus Christ hovers nearby on every cross. Drafts and breezes and winds funneled through passes climb over the town, hawks and buzzards and big-winged creatures swirling, turning, twirling, winding down, down, around to catch another ride. Por puesto vans cart around anonymous passengers on unknown journeys, to the market, to school, to the bar. A few hostels in town filled with recharging visitors, from everywhere. German Martin decides to ride the bus with me to Bucamaranga in Colombia. Three in the morning, we’re waiting for the next bus of the day at the bus station. We chat. My Spanish isn’t what it will be, and the woman talking to me has difficulty making me understand that she wants me to take her child and hold him on my lap for the duration of the trip. Rules say, one child per adult can ride free. She is by herself, she has two children. I consent by silence. We board the bus and the little chap sits next to me, hands folded in his lap, stuck down between his knees, waiting. He doesn’t look at me. He’s done this before, and a man three times his height does not interest or intimidate him. Martin sits across the aisle. We talk. Martin has never been to Colombia. Martin has not read a newspaper in months. He has his trusty travel guide, though. Martin has been out for less than a month. He chose South America because of the favorable exchange rate, but didn’t realize that he would have to transfer all of his Deutsche marks to dollars before he could exchange them for the local currency. His pride and his favorable exchange rate disappear. Turns out Martin doesn’t know anything about Colombia. Doesn’t know about the rebels, the kidnappings, the shootings, buses being stopped so that passengers can be frisked for guns or dubious affiliations. Martin is surprised. I tell him that it’s a good thing. Crime devalues the currency. His Deutsche marks will go further. We take the bus ride. You’ve read about bus rides. They describe the sheer cliffs, right? The drop-offs? The dangerous speed? The twistiness, the turns, winding, binding, back and forth and weaving roads, those the stories maybe do not describe. I barfed, puked, gagged, vomited, made sick. Had to swallow it back down. The bus stops only for the driver. When he stops, you better run. Get your food, your bathroom, your cigarette, gringo on parade. You’ve got unknown quantities of moments in which to take entirely too long and miss your bus. Always order the plata del dia. Faster, plus high-energy starches. Beans, rice, yucca, potatoes. plus thin beef strip for color. We reach Bucamaranga. Early morning. Martin goes to the airport and takes the very next flight out of Colombia. Panicked, scared by the stories. Don’t know where he went. Me, to a hotel. Long nap, quiet room, a rare event. Downstairs, later, in a restaurant, meet Andre and Mark. Andre and Mark are British. We agree: one must set up tasks for oneself, events to be accomplished, in order to provide a point to each day, rather than wandering, wondering around. Many vow to see great churches. Others try every kind of beer. I am always on the look-out for a) an ATM machine compatible with my card, and b) key lime pie. I found no key lime pie anywhere in South America; that doesn’t mean it’s not there. Andre and Mark, however, have decided to a) take every opportunity to watch porn and strip shows and b) to take pictures of crippled beggars, maimed, marked, scarred, ideally freshly bleeding. Quite a picture collection. Stumps, nubs, ends, lumps, bulges, dark on white, white on dark, scabs, scales, peels, wounds, rips, bruises, tears, everything. They have an audience in me. There is, apparently, a scarcity of wounded in Manchester, in England. Once the steam-driven mills left, the gimps eventually died off. Thus, their invented package tour. We’re sitting in the café, a regular march of the poor wind through, their handlers, organ grinders, fathers, not hiding, standing there, directing the world’s greatest actors, children, to acquire idle cash and coins. One, I see later, is parked down the street, his brightly painted colorful van a household, children, too many to count, how many, coming back after each score, sent out again on a mission. But Andre and Mark enjoy their beer. New man, new mendicant, comes forward, unmarked, unscathed, except by street dirt. Mark and Andre ask in schoolboy Spanish, What’s wrong with you? Why do you need money? If you’re not hurt, why do you need money? You’re perfectly healthy. You can work. Our man gets it, understands, cross-cultural barriers broken. Knife out of his shirt, blade open, he pointedly slices his forearm from wrist to elbow. He bleeds. He bleeds everywhere, on the table. Mark and Andre take his picture and give that man a few coins. He walks off.

Posted December 7, 1999

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